Overcoming Isolation: How to Survive a Lonely World.

Over the last hard hitting and heavy week, I have discussed, pondered, lost sleep, and discussed some more the concept of surviving in times that feels so hard and so dark. I have tried to wrap my mind around the desperation and brokenness that people must feel before they submit themselves to a story that ends in suicide. Maybe it’s my perfectionism, need for control, or possibly just the INFP in me that wants to find a path towards healing for those broken and isolated souls. I find myself fixated on gaining understanding surrounding the proliferating rate of suicide in our world today. Perhaps the concept of preventing continued suicide is beyond my capacity and reach; however, I firmly and passionately believe that initiating a conversation might be THE answer to just one person’s plight towards healing.

Did you know the rate of suicide increased 25% from 1999-2016? According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of suicide was double the rate of homicide in 2016. A New York Times article from 2016 says:

“Suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, a federal data analysis has found, with increases in every age group except older adults. The rise was particularly steep for women. It was also substantial among middle-aged Americans, sending a signal of deep anguish from a group whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s. . .

The increases were so widespread that they lifted the nation’s suicide rate to 13 per 100,000 people, the highest since 1986. The rate rose by 2 percent a year starting in 2006, double the annual rise in the earlier period of the study.”

Personally, I think there is no coincidence that our consumption of all things internet, social media, etc. rampantly increased at about the same time. I created my Facebook in 2004. About when did you create your social media platform for identity, communication, and entertainment? I was not nearly as obsessed with social media until it was at my fingertips each moment of the day, how many hours a day to you spend mindlessly scrolling, comparing, judging, etc? Let me briefly step off of my soap box to say that I use social media to promote my blog, my side business, to share memories with friends and family…I value the ease and simplicity of communication within this format; however, it cannot be our only source of socialization. Our desire to be constantly connected, I argue, has led to a lack of genuine human connection. I talk about this more in my post Constantly Connected. Despite our ability to be “constantly connected,’ isolation and social isolation seem to be on the rise.

Quick fact about suicide rates, the states with the historically highest suicide rates are Montana and Alaska. Social isolation in Montana is a problem. Due to geographical realities and cultural norms, people are disconnected from one another.  While I recognize that social isolation is not a problem for every community in these  states, I cannot deny the reality that rural communities (typically) provide increased opportunity for isolation.

The fascinating reality of our world today however, is that we can be in a room with 700 people in a city buzzing with activity and have our minds and hearts elsewhere. We are rarely mindfully present in the space we exist. We are engaged in multiple conversations over various platforms at any given moment. We no longer have to be literally isolated by our geography to exist in a state of isolation.

“Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.”

We are replacing our previous inclination to engage in community in our cities and neighborhoods with online interaction. When we go to dinner or to a party with friends, we spend a fair chunk of time staring at our phones. Our comfort in communicating with a keyboard is exceeding our ability to have face to face, meaningful dialogue fueled with nonverbal communication and all the delightful feels that cannot be adequately expressed without eye contact. I love my emojis people, but there is not an emoji or GIF that can fully impress the depth of love, the elation of joy, or the desperation of grief. We need human connection. We need vulnerable interactions to truly understand love, joy, grief, and every other exquisite emotion that makes up our human experience.

Not only does our infatuation with social media lead to less face to face interaction, it creates a breeding ground for comparison. The comparison trap leads to either feelings of inadequacy or judgment.  I am either not good enough or at least I am doing better than that guy.   If you follow my blog at all, you know I love Brene Brown – a shame researcher. She defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Humans are built for and called to community. We are meant for connection. However, we find ourselves avoiding genuine connection, getting lost in the trap of comparison and wondering why we feel overcome with shame and loneliness.

I am not attempting to solicit support for a ban on social media. As I stated previously, I think our digital connection and access to social media equips us with resourcefulness and allows a different type of engagement. However, I think we MUST recognize the value of human connection and find a balance in our lives that leads to feelings of connectedness. I am also not making a claim that digital connection is the sole cause of isolation and suicide in our world today. However, recognizing the shift in culture, the decline in face to face interaction, and the crumbling of community as we once knew it is relevant in this conversation.

As a mental health professional I recognize that mental illness can be a terminal diagnosis. Despite lifelong battles, medication regimen adjustments, years of therapy…some people do not survive. But what if a willingness and opportunity to connect boosted the brain functionality of even a small percentage of those that are at risk for completing suicide, would reaching out make it worth it? Would promoting a conversation about the beauty of human connection be valuable? I think so.

Make an effort to engage in raw, vulnerable, and real interaction with someone today. Rather than comment on a post or stalk their profile, reach out to a friend that you haven’t connected with recently. Plan to spend valuable time in person. Plan to be genuinely present and mindful during your time with loved ones.

Check on your people. I love the post circulating that encourages us to “check on our strong friends,” we know that suffering does not discriminate.  If you know someone that struggles with shame, comparison, loneliness, isolation, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety or any other human experience that is hard to overcome alone…reach out. Help them recognize their worthiness.  If you are struggling with those realities, release your fears and step into a moment that provides connection. This world is way easier to survive if we are in this together.

Check out the websites listed here:

https://www.crisistextline.org/

http://www.suicideispreventable.org/

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

These are great resources for suicide awareness and prevention. If you or someone you know struggles with thoughts of suicide, know that there are so many places to turn for support. We are increasingly capable of overcoming the pain of mental illness with support. Talking about this stuff is hard, but I will leave you with the quote I keep on my email signature. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brene Brown. Fostering human connection in our lives might just help us survive.

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